THE BLOG

Dear America: Don't Get Used to Living With Fear

04/29/2013 09:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2013
  • Hamna Zubair Fulbright Fellow, Candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing, The New School

When I moved to New York in the summer of 2012 I felt the biggest difference between my new city and my hometown was the absence of physical threats. I quickly filled this absence with everything good I'd always wanted in my daily life but couldn't have back home: taking late night walks just because I felt like it, talking to strangers in the street and relying on efficient public transport to take me where I wanted to go. It was the kind of freedom I imagined everyone should have, the kind of freedom most of us take for granted until something bad happens.

Like what happened in Boston last week. After the bombing I could imagine how much fear, confusion and paranoia must have gripped the city's residents as they shut themselves into their homes. In New York people moved cautiously, too -- police presence swelled on street corners and when a loud bang sounded outside a coffee shop I'd stopped in people shifted skittishly. At home my roommate joked about thinking twice before taking the subway, saying she would have walked to work if work wasn't so far away. I thought about how I'd got around all day.

I had taken the subway thrice.

That was a telling fact. It spoke to how immune I'd become to the threat of violence. I didn't consider violence any less reprehensible than anyone else of course, but I did see my mortality as something that had to be matter-of-factly negotiated every day rather than apprehended only in a vital crisis.

I know that's not normal. And that's why I'd like to urge America: don't get used to living with fear.

I feel I can say this because I was born and raised in Karachi, the city Time Magazine famously labeled "Pakistan's Dark Heart" in 2012. Karachi's more than 18 million inhabitants have lived with intense ethnic strife, terrorism, protection rackets and violent street crime for over two decades. When Karachi suffered its first few bouts of ethnic violence in the 1990s people were genuinely afraid. They organized neighborhood watches, stayed indoors and kept their children home from school. But as the years passed and different governments came and went without managing to establish peace in the city Karachi's residents became hardened. Those who thought they could profit from violence were swallowed up by whichever gang, extremist organization or political party that was in vogue. Those who didn't want to profit from violence found a way to live with it. I was lucky enough to be raised in a home surrounded by four strong walls and a lockable gate, a privilege most of the city's residents don't have. But I can still describe what getting used to living with fear feels, tastes and smells like.

In Karachi, I double-checked the locks on my car doors before I reversed out of my driveway. I drove through red lights after 11 p.m. because stopping at a deserted intersection made me an easy target. When I pulled up outside a friend's house to pick her up I kept the engine running. I kept one eye on the rearview mirror and a foot on the gas because abductions were so common. If a policeman flagged me down I sped up because I couldn't trust the authorities.

Taking these precautions was second nature to me. I did it all without complaint.

When I was working at a newspaper near a troubled part of town I thought nothing of going to work on days when the government called a strike and mobs burnt tires on the road. When extremists killed two outspoken activists in quick succession in 2011 I compartmentalized my horror so I could meet my deadlines. Even the rules of journalism changed to accommodate violence -- in Karachi a bomb blast or shooting claiming two lives wasn't usually important enough to make front page news. It happened so often.

What I realize now is that the residents of Karachi, and most other cities where violence rules the day, seem to have made an unspoken pact: care enough to survive but not so much that you can't function. Life goes on.

Live this way too long, of course, and your daily negotiation of violence becomes a willingness to accommodate it. You find ways to manage the problem rather than eradicate it. You mistake resignation for resilience. Empathy gets lost somewhere on the way.

This is the grey area opportunists too often take advantage of. This numbness can be co-opted by extremists of any sort -- politicians, religious zealots, industry leaders or lobbyists -- who do their best business operating in the shadowy climate of fear.

Boston shut down last week because the city's residents were willing to inconvenience themselves and their businesses for the sake of an investigation. I suspect New Yorkers would react the same way. I know Karachiites wouldn't.

I speak from experience. It's a bad place to find yourself, so I'll say it again: America, don't get used to living with fear -- regardless of whether this fear stems from terrorism, gun violence, petty crime or anything else.